Revisions Extend Linuxs Reach

 
 
By Jason Brooks  |  Posted 2003-02-10
 
 
 

Revisions Extend Linuxs Reach


Theres a strong argument to be made that all the pieces needed for an effective Linux desktop system for the enterprise now exist. Less clear, however, is whether a Linux vendor can collect and package those elements into something thats ready—right out of the box—for the mainstream corporate desktop.

This is what SuSE Linux Inc. set out to do with its SuSE Linux Office Desktop. Although eWeek Labs found the SuSE product makes a strong case for desktop Linux, a substantial amount of work remains to be done—particularly in general fit and finish and key missing functionality, such as VPN (virtual private network) support—before Linux Office Desktop can claim parity with Windows-based systems.

SuSEs Linux Office Desktop, which began shipping last month, is based on Version 8.1 of the companys very good Linux distribution, to which SuSE has added software from CodeWeavers Inc., for limited Windows application compatibility; Sun Microsystems Inc.s StarOffice productivity suite; and Acronis Inc.s OS Selector, with which users can resize NTFS (NT File System) partitions to install SuSE Linux alongside Windows XP. Without the Acronis software, only file allocation table, or FAT, 32 partitions can be resized, so installing SuSE and Windows XP on the same disk would require setting up separate partitions first.

SuSE Linux Office Desktop ships with Version 2.4.19 of the Linux kernel and installs KDE (K Desktop Environment) 3.0.4 as its default desktop environment. We could also opt for GNOME (GNU Network Object Model Environment) 2.0.

The $129 system is among the best desktop Linux systems available and one that permits a measure of backward compatibility to the Windows world. Its also a pretty good deal, considering the licensing costs for the CodeWeavers, Sun and Acronis applications with which its bundled.

Familiar, Not Identical


Familiar, Not Identical

SuSE and its default KDE desktop environment should look familiar enough to Windows users but not at the expense of exposing them to some of the interface virtues of Linux, such as virtual desktops. Also, an icon for accessing the terminal sits on the task bar by default, where in Red Hat Inc.s Red Hat Linux 8.0 and Apple Computer Inc.s Mac OS X, terminal access is tucked out of site.

We were pleased to find that Suns Java Virtual Machine was installed by default, something thats always been a minor hassle for us when setting up new Red Hat systems.

However, for overall look and feel, SuSE still lags well behind Mac OS X and Windows, and also behind Red Hat, which gave its interface a welcome overhaul in Version 8.0. (See eWeek Labs Oct. 8, 2002, review of Red Hat 8.0)

Theres been much debate in the Linux community over Red Hats default Bluecurve theme, with a focus on how the theme has replaced the distinctiveness of GNOME and KDE with a Red Hat-branded look, but this is what mainstream desktop users expect. For example, although the native Web browser for KDE is Konqueror, Red Hat pushes Mozilla as the browser default in KDE and GNOME.

On SuSEs KDE desktop, theres a link for Mozilla, but in the task bar, the linked Web browser is Konqueror, which users may find confusing.

Along the same lines, SuSE could stand to clean up its application menus, which by default contain many items, most of which are not clearly named and some of which are repetitious in functions.

Overall, font installation in SuSE Linux—which is left to KDEs built-in tools—is pretty good, but some inconsistencies stand out. For example, although SuSE and KDE support font anti-aliasing, this support does not extend to Mozilla. Wed like to see SuSE include Xft and an Xft build of Mozilla for improved font handling and display.

One literally welcoming item on the SuSE desktop is SuSE Desktop Linux Assistant (see screen, below), which brings up a menu of actions that someone new to Linux might seek first—such as installing Microsoft Corp. applications and plug-ins, sharing local files on the network and accessing the file shares of others, and setting up a printer.

Its here that we could install and access the CodeWeavers software for running Windows applications, which include most of Microsofts Office 2000 and 97, IBMs Lotus Software divisions Notes, and Microsofts Internet Explorer 5.5, among others.

Weve tested the CodeWeavers software in the past, and using the version that ships with the SuSE desktop, we experienced improved—if fairly uneven—performance. For instance, at times, while running Microsoft Word, we could not access the tool bar, and IE had a tendency to crash while loading our Web site. We had somewhat better success running Macromedia Inc.s Dreamweaver MX, however.

Its best not to regard Windows-application compatibility software as a complete solution but rather as a tool for working around particular software limitations on a case-by-case basis. If you must use Windows software, youre best off using Windows on the desktop.

After all, Windows applications running under Linux still carry licensing costs, and the CodeWeavers software carries licensing costs of its own. For office productivity tasks, weve been quite satisfied with the performance of StarOffice and its sibling, OpenOffice from OpenOffice.org, which run natively on Linux.

We were pleased to see a line item in Desktop Assistant for setting up access to file shares because this is something thats been too difficult to set up on desktop Linux systems for too long. The tool looked promising, but we were unable to use it to access a Windows share we created for testing. We could, however, access our share using Sambas command-line client interface.

Of the systems weve seen, Mac OS X has taken the best advantage of Samba, providing access to Windows shares through a smooth, attractive GUI.

Excellent Management


Excellent Management

The application library complexity from which Windows suffers, commonly known as "DLL hell," can afflict Linux systems as well, but whereas Windows attempts to conceal this complexity from users—with varying degrees of success—Linux systems provide users with tools to work through these issues. As a result, software installation and maintenance for Linux can be daunting, and the tools associated with these tasks must assume a heavier load than those for Windows.

SuSEs software installation and management tools are one of the brightest spots in its Linux offering, occupying a middle ground between simplicity/feebleness and obscurity/power thats left bare in Red Hat 8.0.

With the graphical software package configuration tool that ships with Red Hat 8.0, your options are basic—good for installing software from your Red Hat disks but not for much else. Alternatively, theres RPM (RedHat Package Manager) a command-line package management tool with which you can do pretty much anything, once youve mastered it. However, few have the time to master it, which is why a GUI tool is important.

RPM is also part of SuSE Linux, but SuSEs graphical front end to it, while more challenging than that in Red Hat, is the more effective tool. With it, we were able to search for packages, sort through software dependencies, and make installation and update decisions based on the information we found.

We also liked SuSEs facility for conducting online updates—with one major exception. The trouble was that wed often have to wait a long time for the updater to initialize, possibly because of busy servers, and there was no way to stop this waiting—no cancel button that would allow us to stop, for example, and select another, potentially less busy update site.

On our last test of the updater, as "one moment" stretched to 30 minutes, we were tempted to take the perhaps inelegant step of killing the update process, which wouldve meant becoming superuser through the command line—something a mainstream desktop user would not be comfortable doing. As we all came to learn with Windows 9x, killing runaway programs is part of computing, and this is another task wed like to see made easier in SuSE.

Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at jason_brooks@ziffdavis.com.

Executive Summary


: SuSE Linux Office Desktop">

Executive Summary: SuSE Linux Office Desktop

Usability Fair
Capability Fair
Performance Good
Interoperability Good
Manageability Good
Scalability Good
Security Good

SuSEs SuSE Linux Office Desktop combines an excellent Linux distribution with bundled software for interoperating with Windows applications and systems. It wont be the desktop Linux distribution to knock off Windows, but SuSE Linux Office Desktop demonstrates that Linux has gone much further than it has left to go.

COST ANALYSIS

SuSE Linux Office Desktop costs $129—a very good price when the separate licensing costs of its bundled software are taken into account.

(+) Limited Windows application compatibility; good software installation tool; bundled software for resizing NTFS partitions.

(-) Utility for accessing network shares didnt work; lacks VPN client; fit and finish are uneven in places.

EVALUATION SHORT LIST

  • Red Hats Red Hat 8.0
  • Microsofts Windows XP
  • Apples Mac OS X
  • www.suse.com

  • Rocket Fuel